Insomnia is a 1997 Norwegian Psychological Thriller film directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg and starring Stellan Skarsgård, and a 2002 American remake directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Both films were critical darlings, and the remake in particular became a box office hit.
"White Night" (or "The Midnight Sun") is a phenomenon in which the sun is still visible after midnight in settlements near the Arctic Circle — in some cases, it won't set for months at a time. It is during this season when the savagely beaten body of a local teenage girl is found in a remote Northern town (Tromsø, Norway in the original and Nightmute, Alaska in the remake). The vicious nature of the killing and the meticulous manner in which the body was cleaned has confounded the local police, who soon realize that they need help.
Skarsgård (Pacino as in the remake) plays a jaded, disgraced big-city police detective (Kripos and LAPD respectively) who is flown in together with his partner, to bring the case to a swift end through their wealth of experience with violent crime.
However, due to the stress of the investigation, combined with an extreme case of insomnia brought on by the White Nights, he ends up committing a fatal error when he tries to hunt down the killer - a botch-up that he, overwhelmed by his sleepless frenzy, attempts to cover up.
Soon, the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur, leaving him to question the sins of his past and the bleak prospect of his future. Little does he know that the man he's been hunting is watching him closely, and one tragic mistake is all the killer will need to exploit the detective's weakness...
This film contains examples of:
- Accidental Murder:
- Engström/Dormer accidentally shoots his partner while they're tracking the killer through the mist (in the remake, he covers it up because he had a motive for killing him). Towards the end however, not even he is sure whether it was an accident or not.
- Subverted with the young girl's death. The killer claims that this is how she died. While in the original, it's left rather vague, with the killer probably killing her in a fit of rage, whereas in the remake, he's obviously just making excuses. Dormer also reveals near the end that the research shows that he would have to have taken around 10 minutes to beat her to death, making it anything but accidental.
- Affably Evil: Walter Finch in the remake is very polite and friendly towards Will, viewing him as a similar mind.
- And Your Little Dog, Too!: In the original, Holt threatens to get Ane next if Engström doesn't back off. He was evidently only bluffing though, since he never did it. In the remake, Finch does go through with it, capturing Ellie.
- Anti-Climax: The original's finale at first promises to become a tense standoff, with Holt holding Engström at gunpoint. Then Engström disarms Holt, Holt beats the snot out of Engström and then tries to run away, only to fall through the pier's derelict floor and break his neck. Naturally, this was quite deliberate. Averted in the remake.
- Anti-Hero: The detective. In the original, he is a generally blunt person, and rather cold-blooded and ruthless in his attempts to clear his name. In the remake, he is far more desperate and unwilling, playing the killer's games for reasons that are far less selfish in nature.
- Alas, Poor Villain: In the end of the original, Engström stops to contemplate Holt, who fell through a decayed pier as he tried to run away, breaking his neck and then slipping into the sea, as Holt slowly drowns. All in all, the killer is quite a bit more pathetic here than in the remake, where he is ever-so bit worse.
- Anti-Villain: In the original, Holt the killer. On one hand, he is a devious, cowardly murderer, but the again, he is very clearly a damaged soul who keeps atoning for it throughout the film.
- Asshole Victim: Randy in the remake, whom the two men discuss setting up for Kay's murder. He didn't kill her but was certainly abusive. In the original, the boyfriend was green with envy at his dead girlfriend, but he never became physical. Also, he poked fun at Engström's Suedicisms.
- Berserk Button: The killer beat the girl to death because she pushed his. When she came to him for comfort after having a fight with her boyfriend, he came onto her. She laughed at him, and he reacted with violence.
- Bittersweet Ending: Both films. In the original, Holt is dead, and Engström walks free... driving into a possible Despair Event Horizon. In the remake, both Finch and Dormer die, though the latter has finally found a way to atone for his guilt.
- Black and Grey Morality: The remake. The killer is a cheerful and smiling, but ice-cold psychopath, while Dormer is a angst-ridden Dirty Cop who genuinely tries to do good in an indifferent world, but is forced to dig himself deeper into an inexcusable pit. The two men's relationship could, at best, be likened to a fish caught helplessly in the fisherman's hook.
- Bluffing the Murderer: The detective pulls this off almost immediately after arriving in the town (which, at least in the remake, tips off the killer that he's not just dealing with "backwoods locals" any more).
- Braids, Beads and Buckskins: In the remake, a mechanic and police constable, both Native American, have long braided hair.
- Broken Pedestal: Ellie's view of Dormer in the remake.
- Chekhov's Gun: Engström's Beretta, literally, in the original. Since Norwegian police do not usually carry guns, he is the only officer at the scene who bears one (being a former Swedish policeman). This comes into play later when he accidentally shoots his partner dead during the sting.
- Cultural Translation: Seen rather pointedly in the approaches of the police force in both films. In the Norwegian original, their hunt for the killer is carried out at a calm and laid-back pace and attitude (example: when he flees into the cabin, the police just walk after him), since (most of) the policemen don't carry guns, and don't expect the killer to carry one either. In the remake, all police show up reasonably well-armed and never break out of combat formation, since an armed suspect is seen as a distinct possibility.
- Damsel in Distress: Ellie in the remake, when Finch knocks her out and prepares to kill her, forcing Dormer to rescue her from him.
- Deal with the Devil: The killer, having witnessed the detective accidentally shooting his partner, offers to remain silent on the matter if the detective agrees to help clear him of the girl's murder.
- Delinquents: The victim's boyfriend. When Dormer interrogate's him, he at first tries to affect what Dormer calls a "fuck the world" attitude. After Dormer points out that the boyfriend is making himself out to be the prime suspect through his own stupidity, the kid is more forthcoming.
- Disney Villain Death Holt in the original. He plunges to his death when a few wooden beams give away from under him. It's not as pretty as the usual Disney Villain Death though, as he is seen paralysed as he goes under in the bight.
- Endless Daytime: The films takes place under the midnight sun.
- Faux Affably Evil: The killer, at least in the remake, tries to be friendly and sympathetic to Dormer. When Dormer is in the killers home, he calls Dormer up and says he can use the shower if he wants. He also talks about the great respect he has for the police, and even offers to listen if Dormer wants to talk about his partner. Though it's pretty obvious, even to the sleep deprived Dormer, that the killer isn't doing this out of the kindness of his heart, but as a means to an end.
- Fille Fatale: Katharine Isabelle's character in the remake. She's underaged, but she tries to flirt with Detective Dormer, who is clearly uninterested. But she's just as clearly used to using her body to get her way, so she doesn't notice. The whole reason he took her for a drive was to interrogate her later. She doesn't take well to his interrogation method .
- Film Noir: A hard-boiled yet angst-ridden cop with a Dark and Troubled Past he's trying to escape. Moral complications galore. It's a pretty dark film considering it takes place entirely in bright sunlight.
- Foreign Remake: The 2002 version is an American one of the eponymous 1997 Norwegian thriller.
- Framing the Guilty Party: The detective's sin (he forged evidence in order to get a killer convicted), which he is concerned internal investigations will discover. Also, killer's rationale for framing the dead girl's abusive boyfriend.
- Funny Foreigner: Engström is this to the Norwegians in the original. He's a Swede who joined the Norwegian Politi after falling out of grace with the Swedish Polisen.
- Grey and Gray Morality: The original, albeit bordering on Evil vs. Evil. The killer is something of a labile, choleric pervert, but Engström harbours a terrifyingly ruthless and unhinged personality of his own - even if his judgement is undeniably clouded by his insomnia. In this version, the corruption is much less one-sided, with both men trading threats, blackmail, and flights of panic.
- Hell Is That Noise: The audible beeping noise of the traffic lights slowly mutates into one in the original.
- Has Two Thumbs and... Loves Blowjobs?: Said by one of the Sheriff's deputies in the remake.
- The Hero Dies: Dormer himself at the end of the remake. It straddles the line between downer and bittersweet. He redeems himself for his sins and kills Kay's murderer, and he ensures that Ellie Burr maintains her integrity. On the other hand, by doing so Dormer ensures that a large part of his life's work will be undone when his dishonesty gets out.
- I Didn't Mean to Kill Him: The killer tells the detective who's investigating him (and whom he's blackmailing to help him pin the murder on someone else) that he "didn't mean" to beat his teenage victim to death. When he repeats the same nonsense later on, the detective points out that he knows it took him ten minutes.
- Ironic Name: Dormer's name is a cognate for the word "to sleep" in several Romance languages. Even moreso, his first name is "Will." His name is literally "the will to sleep" when in fact he is The Insomniac.
- The Insomniac: Played in realistic fashion by the detective, (as well as Finch in the remake, who sympathizes with him in a series of taunting phone calls).
- Karma Houdini: Engström in the original. He ends up getting away scot-free with shooting his own partner, fondling a minor, framing an innocent, forcing himself upon the receptionist, and shooting a dog. Then again, it's implied that he might never get to sleep over it again.
- Large Ham: Surprisingly averted by both Al Pacino and Robin Williams, who both give very restrained and understated performances.
Will: This is where your best friend's naked body was found...WRAPPED UP IN GARBAGE BAGS !!
- Though Al Pacino has some short but memorable moments when he raises his voice.
- Let Me at Him!: Invoked by the detective, who is being blackmailed by the killer for an incident in which he accidentally shot his partner. During the interrogation the actual killer tries to steer the cops to suspect Kay's abusive boyfriend with a "smoking gun" piece of evidence. In the remake, Dormer has to get out of the interrogation room so he can find the weapon before the cops search the boyfriend's apartment, so he aggressively questions and tries to hit him so his colleagues will think he's overworked and let him out for a while).
- Light Is Not Good: Most of the plot twists in the film occur because the detective is literally and figuratively unable to step out of the light and/or cover his actions due to the prevalence of daylight.
- Manipulative Bastard: Walter Finch in the remake.
- Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer of the remake made it look like a serial killer movie in the vein of The Silence of the Lambs and even went so far as to add a line (naturally not found anywhere in the movie itself) that claimed the killer kept his victims for 3 days before killing them.
- Not So Different: The killer, a crime author himself, attempts this on the detective several times throughout the film - more subtly in the original, more overtly in the remake (at one point, he mentions that he's always had a great deal of respect for cops, and wanted to be one himself, though he couldn't pass the physical exam). In the original, this also becomes otherwise increasingly apparent with both men's sexual frustration and violent urges shining through.
- Ominous Fog: In both versions, the first chase leads the protagonist, the police and the murderer into an unexpected fog field.
- Once More, with Clarity!: As is the case with Christopher Nolan films, there's a couple shots that take on a new significance when they're shown again later. The movie opens with an extreme closeup of a white cloth being stained with something red, presumably blood. Much later it turns out that this wasn't the victim's blood on her clothes, but blood Dormer was planting on someone clothes in a completely different case, and accidentally getting some on his shirt sleeve. A little later, we get snippets of a girl laughing, which looks like Dormer imagining the victim alive and happy. Then Finch tells Dormer about how he killed the victim for laughing at him. We see the shot again, but this time her laughter is cut short by a blow to the head.
- Pet the Dog: Walter Finch in the remake is a cold-blooded murderer and a literal example who owns two labrador retrievers. When Detective Dormer tracks him down to his apartment the killer is forced to flee, but calls back to make a deal with Dormer and asks him to feed his dogs if he's there anyway. In the original, Holt might be deranged, but nevertheless grief-stricken over what he did.
- Redemption Equals Death: The detective's sins keep accumulating throughout the film. First he is living with the guilt of betraying his own ethics to get a criminal behind bars, then of shooting his partner possibly intentionally, then of helping another murderer get away to protect his legacy. In the remake, Dormer atones by turning against Finch, but dies in the shootout shortly after killing Finch.
- Returning to the Scene: The detective has specific information leaked to the press about highly incriminating evidence found in connection to the murder of Kay so that the killer will go back to the scene (where he dumped the girl's backpack in the original, and the cabin of the murder in the remake) to remove more evidence. The cops are waiting for him (having already discovered the bag/cabin), but they didn't know that there was an underground passageway beneath the cabin which then allows the killer to get away.
- Scenery Porn: Both Northern Norway and Alaska have some beautiful scenery to show off... although the original seems to try hard to ignore it.
- Shoot the Dog: In the original, Engström shoots a neighbour's dog to forge a malformed bullet he could substitute for his own. In the remake, this is downplayed, as Dormer just shoots a dog's rotting cadaver.
- Skeleton Key Card: In the remake, when Dormer first enters Finch's apartment, he picks the lock using a credit card. In the original, Engström uses conventional police-issue lockpicks.
- Sliding Scaleof Idealism Vs Cynicism: The original is situated at the deep dark end, with a protagonist so morally bankrupt that one'd be hard-pressed to even call him a 'good guy'. The remake, on the other hand, sits somewhere in the upper half, with the detective's good side shining through despite everything.
- There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: In the remake, it's those who were born in Alaska and those who come there to escape something. Upon hearing Dormer's confession, his landlord says this - and that she wasn't born in Alaska - to tell him You Are Not Alone.
- They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The killer - Jon Holt, as played by Bjørn Floberg, and Walter Finch, as played by Robin Williams.
- To Be Lawful or Good: How the detective initially sees the choices he makes. In the remake, that desire persists to the end. In the original, not.
- Unfriendly Fire: Implied in the remake, as questions arise as to whether Dormer shooting fellow detective Eckhardt in the mist was truly an accident.
- Eckhardt certainly thinks that Dormer shot him on purpose, as evidenced by his Last Words. The killer, hidden in the mist, observes all of this, and uses it to try and get leverage on Dormer throughout the movie.
- Villain Protagonist: Heavily downplayed in the remake, compared to the original. In the original, Engström is far more of a dirty cop, who gets progressively worse as the film goes on. In the remake, Dormer is more of a good cop whose past mistakes are coming back to haunt him in his sleep-deprived state.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: In the remake, many of Dormer's actions were done out of a genuine belief in Justice and to make sure guilty people get caught.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The killer repeatedly expresses his wonder as to why the detective couldn't just admit to shooting his colleague by mistake, as it wouldn't have ended nearly as bad for him as being caught manipulating the investigation. The killer's not really outraged by it, he's just using it a psychological tactic to convince Dormer that they're Not So Different and should work together.
- Worthy Opponent: In the remake, Finch views his relationship with Will like this. Will, however, thinks he's no more intelligent or special than the innumerable killers he's dealt with before.